UNESCO's 2011 Global Monitoring Report warns that the Millennium Development Goal of education for all will be missed if aid for education in conflict-affected areas is not prioritized.
As many as 28 million children are missing out on education due to armed conflict, according to a new report called "The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education" by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
For South and West Asia, the report shows a marked advance over the past decade towards education for all, but it warns that major challenges remain.
Two decades of conflict in Afghanistan have resulted in an average loss of five and a half years of schooling; and in Pakistan, some 600,000 children were reported in 2009 to have missed over a year of school due to conflict and displacement.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, militants often target schools, especially those for girls
"Asia is still home to 27 percent of the world’s out-of-school children," Kevin Watkins, the director of UNESCO's Global Monitoring Report, told Deutsche Welle.
"Asia is still the part of the world with some of the largest gender inequalities in education," he added. "In a country like Pakistan, for every 10 boys in school, there are just over eight girls."
He said this was "an absolutely shocking state of affairs, which the government of the country really ought to be identifying as a major constraint in economic growth."
Watkins also insisted that more be done to "narrow the wealth gap in education."
Education gaps in Asia
While India had made advances towards universal primary education, and Bangladesh has shown progress in terms of gender parity over the past 10 years, there is a marked difference where in countries where there is conflict.
"The reality is that all Afghans and certainly all service providers really have to take into consideration the security situation," Katherine Hunter, deputy country representative of the Asia Foundation's Afghanistan program.
Bangladesh has made great progress regarding education over the past 10 years
"It's a twofold issue - it's not just school, but the situation should be stable enough for parents to let their daughters go to school," explains Hunter.
"Addressing the whole issue of gender disparity really requires a focus on access to education. We also need enlightened men, fathers, who see the benefits of sending their girls to school."
The report shows that over 600 attacks on schools were recorded in 2009 in Afghanistan, up from about 350 in 2008.
Damage to schools and security fears closed more than 70 percent of schools in Helmand, one of the provinces with the world’s lowest levels of attendance.
Watkins says much more "decisive action" is needed to protect basic human rights. "We believe that the International Criminal Court should be used to prosecute crimes against children that include bombing their schools, attacking children on the way to school and this epidemic of rape and sexual violence," he said.
"Its time to draw a human rights line in the sand and to signal that violators of human rights will cross that line at their parole," he insisted.
Armed conflicts diverting public funds
Armed conflict has also diverted public funds from education, with 21 developing countries currently spending more on arms than on primary schools. The report shows that just one-fifth of Pakistan’s military spending would be sufficient to finance universal primary education.
Meanwhile, Cambodia and Vietnam's military expenditures are up to 1.7 times more than what they spend on primary education.
Afghanistan has to become stable so girls can go to school in safety
Education also accounts for just "a tiny fraction" of humanitarian aid, say Watkins. "Kids who have been displaced by armed conflict, families who are making extraordinary efforts to get their children an education are really being shunned by the international aid community," he complained.
"We need something like 16 billion dollars annually in aid for education. The current levels are stagnating at just over four billion, so there’s a very big gap."
The report warns that unless the international community starts taking the education crisis far more seriously, the Millennium Development Goal of achieving education for all by 2015 will be missed by many of the over 160 countries which signed up to it in 2000.
Author: Sherpem Sherpa
Editor: Anne Thomas